Thursday, December 31, 2009

Open Mind Discovers Florida Keys Photos

This month I spent a windy, overcast and for us Floridians a chilly week in the Florida Keys enjoying the out of doors and taking a break from pushing pixels around on a computer screen.

No long philosophical essay here on the renewal of creative juices for those in the visual communications business. Nor will I evoke Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond to describe the spiritual benefits derived from being out-of-doors.

Just a short note to say I love the outdoors and being alone for a few days with nothing I have to do, and lots of optional creative outlets - photography and sound recording - available should I be moved to leave my campsite reading chair or find ocean kayaking in 30 mile per hour wind no longer relaxing.

You may click on any of these photos to enlarge them.

Without the pressure of having to produce a photograph to a client’s specifications I wandered about Bahia Honda State Park - one of the most beautiful state parks in the country and which has a beach once voted the best in America - struggling to abandon any previous techniques that would box me in to capturing the same old same old photo.

I arrived late in the afternoon and set up my tent in the wind and rain, and it was after “sunset” that I was walking along Sand Spur Beach on a very gray day when I noticed lightening bolts opening up the inside of storm clouds off shore in the Atlantic Ocean. “Thats cool”, I thought, all lit up from inside.

I threw my camera on a tripod, guessed a 30 second time exposure at F 11 might blur the water and if I was lucky I might catch a lightening flash. I was lucky, on the first frame only and created a photo I had not anticipated.

During the day I was looking for a way to make the drab, flat, overcast light interesting and was poking around the dry, sandy scrub land that makes up the interior of the island. I noticed some new bright green Sea Grape leaves, about five inches across, and wondered what they would look like if I lit them with just a light from behind. I placed a flash underneath, blew the light through a white diffusion cloth, and exposed to see the veins and detail thingies inside the leaf. Sorry I’m not a botanist, but I loved finding a new way to discover the complexities of a leaf.

The next evening there was a five minute window at sunset as the sun sliced under the heavy cloud cover and skimmed from the West right along Sand Spur Beach, highlighting the wave ripples as they quietly created patterns that changed several times a second. Here a telephoto lens and fast shutter speed gave me a new insight.

Here's a link to more editorial photography from Florida.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Still Photos Tell Time With Time-Lapse Photography

With some basic experiments in time-lapse photography I’ve been tackling one of the conundrums of multimedia audio slide shows, how do you depict the passage of time with still photographs that do not move.

You may click on photo to see larger.

Below is a 12 second Quick Time movie depicting stars rotating around Polaris - the North Star - in Everglades National Park earlier this year. Or click here for a full size version. A photograph was made every four minutes over 72 minutes, from 12:38 Am to 1: 50 AM, and when assembled to play over 12 seconds, the rotation is really cool.

Slide shows posted to the web have to grab the viewer’s attention and keep it or they will click onto something more interesting, like kittens clapping their paws in time to music on You Tube. Keeping the story’s pace moving and varied is important and can be done in several ways;

  • limit the time each still photo is on screen to under six seconds or so
  • vary the screen time from image to image
  • utilize close up detail photos to balance wide scene setters
  • make sequences of the same portrait setup varying subject size & placement in frame
  • pan across a photo with a “Ken Burns” effect
  • and lastly, utilize time-lapse sequences of still photographs

In the above 22 second Quick Time movie shot on South Beach this Fall at sunrise, 55 photos were captured at five second intervals over just five minutes. A full size version can be seen here. By the way, all three movies attached here are accompanied with natural sound recorded on scene.

Cinematographers have been using time-lapse photography since the early days of movies by capturing each frame of film at a rate much slower than will be played back. A regular feature film is shot at 24 frames a second, and when projected at the same frame rate the motion seems normal to us. Filmed at a much slower rate but played back at 24 fps, the action is sped up. (If shot at a faster frame rate, but played back at 24 fps, we perceive slow motion. ) We’ve all seen time-lapse sequences of flowers blooming, where one frame is shot every hour or so and petals slowly unfold, or a glacier receding from year to year, with one frame per day captured.

Changes across time too subtle for the human eye to detect, such as stars moving in the sky or the sun rising, are slowed down for our study and enjoyment by a slower replay frame rate

From the 47th floor penthouse looking South in August down Miami Beach’s Collins Avenue, the Atlantic Ocean on the left and downtown Miami at upper right, shots were made every 30 seconds or so over 37 minutes for this 21 second Quick Time movie. Full size version available here. I enjoy seeing the clouds slide by, a boat zip up the intra-coastal and post sunset glow settle onto the city.
This sequence with fewer frames included opened the multimedia show I wrote about here.

Time-lapse photography is adding a fun dimension to my multimedia projects by allowing me to show the passage of time. And I'm combining the outdoor and skyline photography I love with my photojournalism and environmental portraiture.

Here's a link to more Miami multimedia photography.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Audio Recording Leads To Pelican Rescue

Sunday I decided a peaceful kayak paddle on Biscayne Bay was a terrific way to enjoy the mild Florida weather and a great opportunity to record quiet ambient sounds, so I grabbed my sound recording gear and Nikon digital point n’ shoot camera and launched just five minutes away from my home. As I left I had no idea I was going to rescue a pelican from certain death nor be cursing the noisy skies above.

You may click on any photo to view larger.

Enjoying the sensation of floating freedom the first few paddle strokes, when my body realized I was not rushing through a metropolis of 2.2 million people, I threaded between a half dozen low mangrove covered islands. In this part of Biscayne Bay, which runs North 35 miles from the Florida Keys and is sandwiched between the Miami Beach barrier island and mainland Miami, I felt as if I was in the wild, yet I was surrounded by urban skyline all around. Sunday I could understood artist Christo’s  fascination with these islands which in 1983  he wrapped in miles of hot pink plastic for his Surrounded Islands art project.

One island is a popular rookery for water birds, allowing osprey, brown pelicans, white ibis, cormorants and even magnificent frigatebirds , which have impressive air filled red pouches and long forked tails, an isolated haven for safe nesting sites. Floating off at a reasonable distance as not to disturb them, I powered up my recorder and shotgun mic to record their raucous clamoring.

I’m not a birder, but I could distinguish the throaty clack-clack-clak of the cormorants and the angry screeching of a great blue heron. And with headphones it sounded like I was deep into a far off wilderness. Well, for about 60 seconds ... off in the distance I heard an airplane, a jet coming closer and louder, finally a roar in my ears. I waited for it to go away, and started recording again. Less than a minute later, another jet.

I quickly realized Miami International Airport was sending flights almost exactly every minute off over Biscayne Bay, and on top of me and the rookery, as the wind was coming inland from the Atlantic Ocean. And soon I picked up the mile off go fast boats, roaring up and down the Intracoastal Waterway , and then a propeller plane pulling a sign that read “I luv u Amy, will you marry me? Omar.”

What the heck, I decided to incorporate the jets into a sound clip, plus some peaceful wind blowing through island palm trees and water lapping on shore, recorded in the 30 seconds of relative silence between jets. It's 1:30 long.

By the time I left the rookery, the wind was blowing with light chop and rain squalls were passing over the bay. I headed for a more southern island, and hugging the shore, I turned a bend and was startled by a pelican less than a paddle length away. He was sitting just above the water on a mangrove branch. I said “hello”, and moved off not wanting to disturb it. But about 100 yards down the island, it struck me that something did not seem right. Pelicans always fly away from large orange kayaks.

I turned around and paddled back, approaching the pelican again and looking closely I could see it was thoroughly tied down with fishing line. I could even see a lead sinker half an inch across.  Carelessly discarded fishing tackle is a major threat to pelicans in Florida, as they can swallow baited hooks or be caught during a cast. In May I photographed Wendy Fox, the Executive Director of the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and I had seen dozens of injured and recuperating pelicans at their facility just a couple of miles up the bay from this poor fellow.

I knew from watching Wendy teach an intern how to handle pelicans that I did not have the special skills to catch a wild bird with a 10 foot wing span, and I certainly had no veterinary expertise. But this spot was in water about two feet deep so little small boat traffic passed by, and I had to do something. No telling how long it had been trapped, it could be starving to death for all I knew. I paddled over to the mangrove in the choppy water, and the pelican flapped and spun around on it’s fishing line tether. 

I cursed not carrying a knife with me, but I was wearing paddling gloves, so I figured I could at least break the line. With the bird squawking and throwing it’s beak about, I noticed a brass clip holing an 18 inch leader to a large hook caught deep into the center of his back. Bad luck for the bird, good luck for me as it was an easy fix, and the moment the bird felt the tension release, it flapped off into the water under  thick mangroves.

I really didn’t want to capture the bird and paddle it to the Seabird Station, but I had to make sure it wasn’t half dead. I beached the kayak, crawled under the mangroves, shooing the bird into open water, where it flew off. I was relieved to see it seemed vigorous, and hopefully the hook could remain in it’s back without harming him for the rest of his life.

I gladly joined the large club of Florida boaters who have rescued sea birds, and paddled off looking for more sounds to record, wondering if Amy took Omar up on his proposal.

Here's a link to more Miami multimedia photography.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Photographing Details and Grasshopper Buzz

Earlier this month I had fun searching for detail photographs, those very selective views extracted with a telephoto lens, while visiting Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province, a bustling and visually chaotic city of 11 million. From past experience I knew that discovering details often reveals small insightful stories about the country I'm traveling in, which I feel is one of the best rewards of travel.

While walking through the park-like Kuanzhai Xiangzi shopping area in the central Chengdu, I heard the melodic sounds of metal tuning forks. Men and women dressed in medical style white coats were sounding them to solicit business from shoppers and tea house customers.

They were the city’s unique ear-cleaners, who carried pockets full of what looked like miniature chimney sweep tools, long wooden and wire handles with knives, scoops and brushes on the end, some tipped with tiny delicate feathers.

I didn’t really want my ears cleaned, especially not in full view of the public, but there was no shortage of others getting comfortable in chairs under shade trees, closing their eyes and slowing displaying the most relaxed expressions on their faces.

I was told the procedure is less a hygienic exercise and more a massage-like experience, with the tools and feathers stimulating acupuncture points within the ear. When the vibrating tuning fork is placed against a brush, the gentle sound deep within the ear has been described as the soft relaxing buzz of a grasshopper.

I encountered another visual detail while visiting the Wenshu Buddhist Temple where visitors were touching, patting and caressing two large brass lions guarding the main hall’s entrance. These mythical male and female lions symbolize defense and protection and guard many building and gateway entrances throughout China.

I knew touching the lions is thought to bring good luck, but these worshipers were also touching the corresponding spot on themselves. A pat on the lion’s worn head, a pat on their head. A brush down the lion’s back, a touch to their own.

A visitor explained to me that it is believed their own physical ailments at those locations would be healed or at least improved with the tactile help of these lions.

Just outside the Wenshu Temple were incense and candle shops and rows of outdoor souvenir stands lining the busy commercial street, a perfect example of the new China. One tiny detail caught my eye, a rack of plastic medallions with bright red braided cord.  In the USA they could pass for either Christmas ornaments or decorations to hang from your car’s rear view mirror.

I loved the juxtaposition - and irony - of  Mao Zedong’s familiar and reassuring portrait being sold next to Buddhist religious icons. China certainly has come a long way since the chaotic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s where no religion or independent thought was tolerated, nor were entrepreneurs allowed to flourish selling anything.

Such a small detail I might have overlooked in the past

When earlier in my career I was shooting news for daily newspapers and later United Press International, I was always looking for that one moment in time that would tell the reader the journalistic touch points of who, what, where and why. Often the best way to do that was with an all encompassing wide angle lens, placing the action in the foreground while maintaining the context of the surroundings. The optics of a wide angle emphasizes what is closest to it, yet it can fit in a lot of real estate left to right, especially if your in tight quarters. A photographer can also create a wonderful three dimensional feeling with a wide angle with graphic lines leading your eye within the image.

I still have that news photographer point of view, a wide angle is my “normal” lens, 24 mm or so, rather than what text books describe as the preferred angle of view, a 50 mm..

But as my client base and photographic interests have broadened, so has my need to capture detail views to be published in print complementing the scene setter, or utilized in multimedia shows depicting movement and time.

And I’m learning more about the world around me ... maybe when I next visit Chengdu I’ll understand the wisdom of  having my ears cleaned.

Here's a link to more editorial photography from Sichuan.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Personalizing A Small Business With Multimedia

When Jana Armstrong came to me in September she had a definite goal for her title insurance company, Miami based Continental Title Services; grow her business and thrive in spite of our current world wide economic slump that has hammered the real estate industry.

She had thought through and articulately put on paper what her small business was all about and why her services were unique, and had distilled the information onto her redesigned web site.

She challenged me to help her differentiate her company's site from the crowd of title insurance company sites competing for attention in South Florida.

I suggested that a multimedia slide show - combining still photographs with recorded interviews - would present her as a real person, warm and approachable, professional and knowledgeable. By utilizing journalistic interview techniques and photographic styles we would place a unique voice and face to all the written material.

We all know from when we were kids with noses buried in the National Geographic that everybody looks at the photos first, then maybe, reads the story. And with the YouTube generation well reasoned sales copy may be skipped over, but two minutes of multimedia may just make the connection.

Here is the finished show, live this week, and link to a larger version.

To create the multimedia slide show we first discussed what handful of key points she wanted to make in a brief 2 minutes 46 seconds, and I interviewed her from a list of questions prepared from those points.

Next was recording ambient sound of their document scanner, keyboards and conversations, and then street traffic and the ocean, to lay a bed of colorful sound under her voice.

I created environmental portraits of her overlooking the financial district’s Brickell Avenue and on Biscayne Bay to place her in the midst of Miami, the vibrant crossroads city.

I shot journalistic photos of her conducting a closing with clients, and then detail shots of hands, papers and CDs to vary the show’s timing and pace.

Capturing a time lapse sequence of Miami Beach skyline from daylight to after dark, and photographing a condominium project described in the interview, added additional visual layers to the narrative, emphasizing her stature in her market area.

And lastly, screen shots grabbed from her web site would mark specific points touched in the audio story.

I loved working with Jana on this project, she being an equal partner in planning the interview, sketching out the story board and shaping the program's pace and tone. And I was able to combine my photographic favorites of environmental portraiture and city skylines with the newfound magic of audio.

Ah, then the really hard part began, post production, editing and mixing the audio, selecting and processing the digital photos, placing the ingredients into more software to set and adjust the time line. For every day in the field, several more are required on the computer to complete a multimedia project.

The results, I feel, humanize the rows of type on a screen in telling Jana Armstrong’s story to the world.

Here's a link to more Miami multimedia photography.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Listening For Photographs and Looking For Sounds

I’ve just returned from more than two weeks traveling in the ethnic Tibetan regions of
Western Sichuan province, the mountainous areas abutting the Tibetan Autonomous Region, as the People’s Republic of China describes what we call the country of Tibet.

This fifth trip to China was my first where I started listening for photographs, and looking for sounds.

When we first drove up a steep hill to the Huiyuan Temple in Bamei, looking down onto a temple carved from the earth, dozens of  spinning prayer wheels and hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims marching clockwise, I was overwhelmed and unable to pick up a camera. Just too many sensations to absorb at once. Heck, there were even dozens of young monks swarming all over painting the decorative roof.

I put on my headphones, turned on my tape recorder, attached a microphone and started listening. I heard the shuffling feet, and spin of the wheels. I followed a tinkling bell to the far side, recorded the low chants, creak of the prayer wheel. I noticed the steady thump of walking sticks. I started to see photographs and got to work.

Play the 30 second clip under the photo and experience how the ambient sounds inform the photograph, and how the photo amplifies on the recordings.

After dedicating my entire photographic career to photojournalism and commercial photography by capturing a single image distilling an entire story into a single frame, Henri Cartier-Breasson’s famous “Decisive Moment”, I’ve begun working in multimedia production. I’ve become fascinated with the expanded dimensions of story telling that capturing on scene ambient sounds and interviews with photo subjects add to my still photographs.

Ultimately I will combine the sounds and still photos from Sichuan into a multimedia slide show that will tell a story over time, linear story telling, but that will be a topic of a future post.

At a Tibetan cultural dance festival in Danba I loved photographing these men wearing hats made from wild cat skins ( and hoping they were not endangered species ), yet when I recorded their call and answer singing with their female partners, and their skin boots stomping, the entire experience came alive.

Back in Chengdu, a very laid back and friendly city of 10 million, I was walking through the quiet gardens attached to the Wenshu Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in China. It was overcast, air yellow with pollution. Bad light, my photographer side said. While listening to the monks chanting during their mid-day meal, I heard a bird at a distance, and followed the sound. Then more birds, playing off each other, rising and flowing through the trees. I did not recognize them as wild, they were so melodic.

Under the low hanging bamboo trees were six song birds in cages, enjoying the “fresh air”, with their six elderly male owners sitting on stools and animatedly discussing the affairs of the day and the relative skills of their birds. Another combination of photographs with sound.

It all started last summer. For years I’ve  spent a lot of time capturing landscapes and photographing the wildlife in Everglades National Park, using the subtleties of sunrise light or catching the glint in an alligator’s eye to tell my stories. Of course I was aware of the sounds around me, buzz of the insects and calls of the birds. But they were just part of the enjoyment of being out doors, not being in an office cubicle to make a living. But this summer when I ventured into the same familiar wetlands with a tape recorder and shotgun mic, suddenly my visual world really came alive with the sounds that surrounded me. A thunder storm, rain drops and running water said “Everglades” in a way none of my photos ever had.

Be warned, it's three minutes long.

I was unable to post to this blog while in China, as the government has blocked practically all access to social media from within the country, including Blogger, Face Book and Twitter. An internet search from within China yielded complicated articles on how to use proxy servers to read and post to overseas blogs, but I decided that was way too complicated while I was working up to 14 hour days and sleeping poorly at 10, 000 feet.

Heck, the PRC has even blocked access to the iTunes store, making it impossible to catch up on the National Public Radio shows such as “Car Talk” that I missed!

Here's a link to more editorial photography from Sichuan China.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Lessons From Chinese Breezes

 I have two sides to my working personality, and I think most people do too. One side rational, the other side emotional. Organized and disorganized. Hard working and lazy.

Two photographs that I've taken in China illustrate my different sides and have taught me two lessons about capturing great photos while traveling. First, work really hard, do your homework and be persistent. Secondly, don't worry about outside forces and be flexible.

Shanghai is an amazing city to say the least, a perfect example of China's new "Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics", and nothing exemplifies that better than along The Bund, the promenade above the western bank of the Huangpu River facing the towering skyscrapers of the Pudong District.

The Bund is within the former Shanghai International Settlement and is fronted with colonial era buildings that before 1948 housed Western Banks, trading offices and foreign consulates, embracing centuries of Chinese history. Today, thousands every morning keep Chinese traditions alive by performing tai chi, exercising and strolling. The skyscrapers, some the tallest in the world, across the river represent the booming economy of China.

Planning before my trip dictated the obvious photo opportunity, and I returned to The Bund early every morning for four days running. I noticed older men flying elaborate kites each day, their dancing toys way to high to make a picture. Finally, on the last day, just as the sun was rising, I made the image I felt captured both the traditional and booming China.

On the same trip, my friend Nancy Brown and I were invited by the Huaguang Photography Art College in Fujian Province to share our photography and be liaisons with the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale. 

The college is located in the city of Quanzhou, a city of over seven million, and is not exactly a hot tourism destination. The one place we found in a guide book with picture potential was a puppet making industry, so we asked our hosts to set up a visit. They promised for four days that it would be no problem.

On our last day, we were told we were finally off to the puppets, but first a few stops that the city fathers and school officials, who were financing our trip within China, wanted to show off. First, the electrical cord factory. Second, a rusty ship yard. Third, a mosque that consisted of mounds of rubble. Then, a decorative paper cutting workshop. Don't worry, the reassured us, the puppets are awaiting.

Then, off to see a monument. At that point Nancy and I protested and complained, as politely as we could that we were tired of the dog and pony show. No, the monument we must see !

When we approach the monument, reportedly the largest in China, of Zheng Chenggong, a 17th century Chinese national hero, we were amazed by the scene. And this complainer caught the perfect moment of a woman flying a tiny kite under the giant horseman.

As for the puppets, the factory was closed when we finally arrived, but by then it didn't matter as I had already let go of my agenda and captured the unplanned.

Here's a link to see more editorial photography from China.

Garbage Dump Challenge and an Old Promise

Last week I was tasked with creating interesting environmental portraits and progress photographs at a garbage dump for new client Brenda Westhorp, owner of Westhorp & Associates , a firm of civil and environmental engineers and scientists.

My challenge was to place Brenda in the context of the landfill, make it graphically pleasing, avoid
any messy details entailing garbage, and have her look great and in charge. We picked a quiet spot on
the far Eastern edge up against a filtering wetland near Biscayne Bay, she climbed up on a manhole covering a leaching water sump, leaving in the weeds and wildflowers to say the facility is "green".

I then cued the turkey buzzards, asking them to fly around in the background as local color.

Letting the existing sunlight back light her and popping in flash from the front to balance, I laid on my back in the dirt while Brenda posed patiently in the 95 degree sun. Many thanks to the Department of Solid Waste garbage truck drivers who patiently maneuvered around us on the narrow access dike.

Her company is completing a complex multimillion dollar project to cap off a section of the Miami-Dade County Land Fill that is full to the brim with our garbage, and to keep all the leaching water and escaping gasses away from us for eternity. They are laying plastic liner, then sand and a permeable fabric to hold topsoil, and a new grassy field will crown the 150 foot structure.

Around South Florida the land fill near Homestead has been called" Mount Trashmore ",
and folk lore designates it as the the tallest point in Florida south of Tallahassee.

Creative people such as photographers hope they are chosen for their jobs because of some special insight they may impart, good people skills or specialized training. Like possibly I was hired for this shoot by an engineering firm because I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering ?

Sorry, but no, that degree is my secret and the promises I made to earn it I keep to this day. I was in my Senior year at Gonzaga University back in the 1970s, and was failing a required mechanical engineering course called Dynamics. Fulcrums and levers, forces and counter forces. So I went to my professor, told him how I did not want to be an engineer but a photographer, though I still needed
to earn my degree. What could he do ?

He thought a minute, opened his desk drawer and pulled out a Bible ( it being a Catholic school ), and told me that if I swore on that Bible that I would never practice as an engineer, he would give me a barely passing grade.

So there I was 30 years later, standing on top of the tallest mountain south of Tallahassee, practicing as a photographer and not as an engineer.

Here's a link to more Miami corporate photography and portraits.